Inspiring Quotes for Black History Month: ‘Freedom Is Never Given’

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses a crowd in Jan. 1965.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses a crowd in Jan. 1965. (Getty Images)

February is Black History Month and to get ready, we rounded up 120 inspiring Black History Month quotes from civil rights icons including Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. These powerful public figures have left a mark on our country with their insightful words, historic speeches and more.

The month honors African American people’s rich range of experiences, struggles and achievements throughout history and into the modern-day.

This year’s theme, “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity,” explores how the black family has been “reverenced, stereotyped, and vilified from the days of slavery to our own time.” The theme encompasses the individual black family and encourages “discussions on the nature and impact of parenting, childhood, marriage, gender norms, sexuality, and incarceration,” according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the organization that founded Black History Month.

The theme also refers more broadly to people from Africa and the diaspora, and how the wider identity of the black family has been portrayed in history, literature, the visual arts and other disciplines.

“The black family knows no single location, since family reunions and genetic-ancestry searches testify to the spread of family members across states, nations, and continents,” the ASALH adds on their website. “Not only are individual black families diasporic, but Africa and the diaspora itself have been long portrayed as the black family at large.”

In honor of Black History Month, we’ve rounded up 120 inspiring quotes from civil rights icons including Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as words of wisdom from inspiring modern figures including Viola Davis, Janelle Monáe, and Shonda Rhimes. These public figures have left a mark on our country with their insightful words, historic speeches, powerful writing and performances, and more.

To celebrate Black History Month, here are 120 quotes to remember.

120 Black History Month Quotes

1. “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.”
—Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut

2. “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Related: Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes

3. “The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois

4. “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
—Thurgood Marshall, first African American U.S. Supreme Court member

5. “Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.”
—Coretta Scott King

6. “Whatever we believe about ourselves and our ability comes true for us.”
—Susan L. Taylor, journalist

7. “Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face.”
—Carol Moseley-Braun, politician and lawyer

8. “One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.”
—Franklin Thomas, activist, philanthropist, and former president of the Ford Foundation

9. “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
—Desmond Tutu

10. “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.”
—Langston Hughes

11. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
—Frederick Douglass

12. “The time is always right to do what is right.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

13. “Have a vision. Be demanding.”
—Colin Powell

14. “Freedom is never given; it is won.”
—A. Philip Randolph, civil rights activist

15. “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”
—Booker T. Washington

16. “We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.”
—Jesse Owens, world record-setting Olympic athlete

17. “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear.” —Rosa Parks

18. “Just don’t give up what you’re trying to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” —Ella Fitzgerald

19. “If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves and allow those responsible to salve their conscience by believing that they have our acceptance and concurrence. We should, therefore, protest openly everything… that smacks of discrimination or slander.” —Mary McLeod Bethune

20. “Wherever there is a human being, I see God-given rights inherent in that being, whatever may be the sex or complexion.” —William Lloyd Garrison

21. “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

22. “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” —Muhammad Ali

23. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” —Nelson Mandela

24. “The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.” —Maya Angelou

25. “Truth is powerful and it prevails.” —Sojourner Truth

26. “I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” —Michael Jordan

27. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” —Barack Obama

28. “Hold on to your dreams of a better life and stay committed to striving to realize it.” —Earl G. Graves, Sr.

29. “Won’t it be wonderful when black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book. Just U.S. history.” —Maya Angelou

30. “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” —Morgan Freeman

31. “It’s important for us to also understand that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability.” —Barack Obama

32. ”I swear to the Lord I still can’t see why democracy means everybody but me.” —Langston Hughes

33. “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

34. “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap.  I had already determined to sell my life as early as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.” —Ida B. Wells

35. “I’m not quite sure what freedom is, but I know damn well what it ain’t. How have we gotten so silly, I wonder.” —Assata Shakur

36. “I knew then and I know now, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it.” —Claudette Colvin

37. “During Black History Month, I’m reminded yet again of the ways that the struggle for civil rights is interwoven with the struggle for workers’ rights.” —Tom Perez

38. “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.  I rise. I rise. I rise.” —Maya Angelou

39. “Diversity is not about how we differ. Diversity is about embracing one another’s uniqueness.” —Ola Joseph

40. “Character is power.” —Booker T. Washington

41. “One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says distract you from your goals. And so when I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don’t invest any energy in them, because I know who I am.” —Michelle Obama

42. “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” —Mother Teresa

43. “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” —Malcolm X

44. “The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” —Frederick Douglass

45. I am America.  I am the part you won’t recognize.  But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” —Muhammad Ali

46. “Have a vision of excellence, a dream of success, and work like hell.” —Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook

47. “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught.  I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates?  Naps! End of list.” —Dennis Leary

48. “Today we know with certainty that segregation is dead.  The only question remaining is how costly will be the funeral.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

49. “‘We, the people.’  It is a very eloquent beginning.  But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.”  I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’” —Barbara Jordan

50. “I had no idea that history was being made.  I was just tired of giving up.” —Rosa Parks

51. “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” —Abraham Joshua Heschel

52. “The majority of the Negroes who took part in the year-long boycott of Montgomery’s buses were poor and untutored; but they understood the essence of the Montgomery movement; one elderly woman summed it up for the rest.  When asked after several weeks of walking whether she was tired, she answered: ‘My feet is tired, but my soul is at rest.’” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

53. “If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life.” —Marcus Garvey

54. “There comes a time when people get tired of being plunged into the abyss of exploitation and nagging injustice.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

55. “If the only time you think of me as a scientist is during Black History Month, then I must not be doing my job as a scientist.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson

56. “Every time you state what you want or believe, you’re the first to hear it. It’s a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don’t put a ceiling on yourself.” —Oprah Winfrey

57. “When we’re talking about diversity, it’s not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us.” —Ava DuVernay

58. “I am lucky that whatever fear I have inside me, my desire to win is always stronger.” —Serena Williams

59. “As black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences — experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as black women is take the worst situations and create from that point.” —Viola Davis

60. “Dreams are lovely but they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.” —Shonda Rhimes

61. “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion, you’re wasting your life.” —Jackie Robinson

62. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” —Shirley Chisholm

63. “I’m hungry for knowledge. The whole thing is to learn every day, to get brighter and brighter. That’s what this world is about. You look at someone like Gandhi, and he glowed. Martin Luther King glowed. Muhammad Ali glows. I think that’s from being bright all the time, and trying to be brighter.” —Jay-Z

64. “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” —Muhammad Ali

65. “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou

66. “We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.” —Aretha Franklin

67. “The thing about black history is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up.” —Henry Louis Gates

68. “Black History Month must be more than just a month of remembrance; it should be a tribute to our history and reminder of the work that lies in the months and years ahead.” —Marty Meehan

69. “Black history isn’t a separate history. This is all of our history, this is American history, and we need to understand that. It has such an impact on kids and their values and how they view black people.” —Karyn Parsons

70. “Don’t agonize, organize.” —Florynce Kennedy

71. “Whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you’ll find that when you’re free . . . your true self comes out.” —Tina Turner

72. “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” —Toni Morrison

73. “There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.” —Michelle Obama

74. “The impatient idealist says: ‘Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.’ But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.” —Chinua Achebe

75. “If you don’t have confidence, you’ll always find a way not to win.” —Carl Lewis

76. “Stretch your mind and fly.” —Whitney M. Young Jr

77. “Don’t let anything stop you. There will be times when you’ll be disappointed, but you can’t stop.” —Sadie T. M. Alexander

78. “Life has two rules: number 1, never quit! Number 2, always remember rule number one.” —Duke Ellington

79. “Be as you are and hope that it’s right.” —Dizzy Gillespie

80. “A man without knowledge of himself and his heritage is like a tree without roots.” —Dick Gregory

81. “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” —James Baldwin

82. “We have a wonderful history behind us…and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” —Carter G. Woodson

83. “When I look at the future, it’s so bright it burns my eyes.” —Oprah Winfrey

84. “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker

85. “You are your best thing.” —Toni Morrison

86. “I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black; it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.” —June Jordan

87. “I need to see my own beauty and to continue to be reminded that I am enough, that I am worthy of love without effort, that I am beautiful, that the texture of my hair and that the shape of my curves, the size of my lips, the color of my skin, and the feelings that I have are all worthy and okay.” —Tracee Ellis Ross

88. “You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.” —Nina Simone

89. “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.” —Janelle Monáe

90. “You are where you are today because you stand on somebody’s shoulders. And wherever you are heading, you cannot get there by yourself. If you stand on the shoulders of others, you have a reciprocal responsibility to live your life so that others may stand on your shoulders. It’s the quid pro quo of life. We exist temporarily through what we take, but we live forever through what we give.” —Vernon Jordan

91. “If everything was perfect, you would never learn and you would never grow.” —Beyonce Knowles

92. “Freedom is not something that one people can bestow on another as a gift. Thy claim it as their own and none can keep it from them.” —Kwame Nkrumah

93. “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” —Madam C.J. Walker

94. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” —Ida B. Wells

95. “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.” —Harriet Tubman

96. “Make a difference about something other than yourselves.” —Toni Morrison

97. “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” —Arthur Ashe

98. “God’s time [Emancipation]is always near.  He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs;  He meant I should be free.” —Harriet Tubman

99. “The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up.” —Mae C. Jemison

100. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

101. “The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself—the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us—that’s where it’s at.” —Jesse Owens

102. “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” —Wilma Rudolph

103. “For Africa to me… is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.” —Maya Angelou

104. “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope… and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” —Robert F. Kennedy

105. “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” —Booker T. Washington

106. “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.” —Nelson Mandela

107. “One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.” —James Earl Jones

108. “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” —Nelson Mandela

109. “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

110. “The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.” —Eldridge Cleaver

111. “There is no vaccine for racism.” Kamala Harris

112. “Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals?” —Barack Obama

113. “We will all, at some point, encounter hurdles to gaining access and entry, moving up and conquering self-doubt; but on the other side is the capacity to own opportunity and tell our own story.” —Stacey Abrams

114. “Friendly reminder that you don’t have to say the ‘n word’ to be racist. That’s not the sole requirement. Asking people to prove racism is another tool the oppressor uses to marginalize and discredit us.” —Lizzo

115. “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” —Toni Morrison

116. “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” —Ijoema Oluo

117. “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.” —John Lewis

118. “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” —Alice Walker

119. “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” —Angela Davis

120. ”We must never forget that Black History is American History. The achievements of African Americans have contributed to our nation’s greatness.” —Yvette Clarke


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